Sunday, 20 October 2013

Tampat Do Aman

A Malaysian Tech-Free Getaway

With mobile technology becoming ever more ubiquitous and new conditions and syndromes being diagnosed to cover the anxiety that accompanies the separation between smartphone and addict, the travel industry is moving more and more towards tech-free getaways that offer opportunities to go cold turkey and detox from modern life. Freeing us from the shackles of Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin is the next big trend in the travel industry.

Hong Kong seems to have a bigger problem than most when it comes to reliance of technology, as the city, with a population of just over 7 million, had over 16 million phone subscribers as of November 2012.

With plenty of options for high-cost, low-tech getaways at sterile resorts that do their best to shelter you from nature by positioning palms in pots around manicured lawns that surround gleaming swimming pools, I am more inclined to go for a low-tech getaway at a more pocket-friendly "resort."

A very interesting cultural exchange on the three-hour minibus trip - the driver stopping at a roadside stall to buy a large bag of fresh, deep-fried banana pieces in batter called pisang goreng - we arrived at the low-tech eco-resort of Tampat Do Aman.

Tampat Do Aman could, I suppose, be described as a resort. But instead of a gleaming pool there is the South China Sea and instead of potted palms there is tropical jungle. The white beaches are deserted and the cool water, which is clear aside from the swirl of fine sand that is churned up with every wave, is the perfect accompaniment to the blazing "spring" sun.

The resort is run by Howard, a former rugby playing, 40 something Englishman, who speaks Malay. The resort consists of a "jungle camp" and a beach-side cafe. The bunks and small huts are a short drive from the beach and cafe, and along with the cold showers (it's Malaysia and it was April so they were very welcome), remind you this is not a resort as you know it. Located at the tip of Borneo, the sunsets are incredible and the food, particularly the aforementioned pisang goreng, kaya (a coconut jam), fresh swordfish and tuna, and hinava (a Sabah take on ceviche) are really something that for most people can play a huge part in making or breaking a holiday.

The Man with the Golden Gun

In the book that preceded the film The Man with the Golden Gun the tri-nippled Scaramnaga is a crack shot, but unlike his namesake on the silver screen his silver bullets were liberal ally sprayed around in the book in an arrogant show of the marksmanship that earned him his moniker. Aside from MI5 agents and anyone who dared to cross him Scaramnaga seemed to have a particular dislike for birds. Both blackbirds and turkey buzzards fell victim to his moods and whims in Ian Fleming’s 1965 novel. It was with these scenes in my mind that I tried in vain to sleep in the hot and humid conditions of Borneo in April. It was these same scenes that came flooding back, and at the same time my sympathy for the birds deserted me, when I was woken just after 3am by the several temporally challenged roosters that are resident at the camp.

The curious incident of the dogs in the night

The wildlife is something to be treasured at these kinds of places, but as the roosters highlighted they do not always work in conjunction with the people. As Tip Top, the beach-side bar and restaurant, is a few kilometres from the camp, a stroll from the beach seemed like a very relaxing, beach-holiday thing to do. The short walk through the bible black Malaysian night was quickly curtailed, however, when a dozen (perhaps I am being dramatic, but it was at least three) barking dogs, concealed by the darkness, prompted an abrupt about turn. Not wanting to walk all the way back to the beach I opted instead to ask a local for a lift, which, like the idea to begin with is something “travellers” do.
A table of Malaysian men who were sat around a rickety table outside a shack of a bar seemed eager to have a drink and offered me the same warm beer several times. They were working men and they were unwinding. After some persuading one of them offered to taxi my girlfriend and me back to our hut. It was on this short trip, in an extraordinarily new looking truck, that was at odds with the rest of the area, I was given a short but pertinent lecture about the man behind Tampat Do Aman. I’m not sure if it was sour grapes, a personal grudge or a legitimate complaint, but from my perspective Howard came across as an honest man who was running a legitimate business and couldn't make millions out of the place and run off in the night even if he wanted to. 

Practical Stuff

Howard has the place well stocked with snorkeling equipment, kayaks, bikes and a car for hire, and he is very accommodating. He also told me that he was heavily invested in the local community and the resort itself runs in conjunction with the locals, with a deal being struck so that the locals get a small cut of his profits in exchange for agreeing to let him build the place to begin with.

And the low-tech part? Well the internet is incredibly slow and the sunsets so amazing that the only thing you will want to get online for is to make your friends envious of where you are and a few minutes of watching the progress bar is enough and you give up and realise why you went to Borneo in the first place. 

There is a lot more to do too and Howard et al are happy to accommodate you if they can. The menu says that with a few days notice the young girls who run the kitchen will be happy you show you how to cook some of the Malaysian items on the menu.They are equally happy to learn something new. 

Receiving high ratings and favourable reviews on Tripadvisor, and a mention in Lonely Planet, the relative inexpensiveness of the place is matched only by the lack of luxury. With camp showers and no frills, like laundry facilities, Tampat Do Aman could be a great base to explore the Tip of Borneo and the surrounding area if you hire a car, otherwise you are somewhat tethered to the restaurant, which as pleasing as that might be to Howard, it could make a longer stay a bit tedious, especially as the beach and lodge are a few kilometres apart. Howard has a car for hire, but hiring a car in Kota Kinabalu and leisurely driving up would be a good idea too.

It was an inexpensive stay overall, coming out at about 100 USD for two people for three nights including a dozen beers, half a dozen soft drinks, a couple of breakfasts, accommodation for two for two nights and an inexplicably expensive transfer to Kudat (30 km for 30 MYR, which was 5 MYR more than the three hour shared taxi that dropped my party of two at the lodge from Kota Kinabalu). 
AirAsia fly to Kota Kinabalu from Hong Kong.

Friday, 18 October 2013


Hong Kong’s cousin from another ... colonial overlord

It is the age-old story of marauding Europeans looking for more stuff. The Portuguese wanted to trade with the Chinese, and did for a while, but the Chinese remained sceptical. When they got news the Portuguese had been misbehaving elsewhere, both in China and around the region, they became a bit more hostile, torturing and executing a few. After some raiding and pillaging from the naughty Portuguese it was decreed that, just to be safe, all Portuguese should be killed on the spot. Perhaps a touch draconian. A couple of massacres at Ningbo and at Quanzhou sent the Europeans fleeing to Macau. Eventually they made up and in 1557 a permanent Portuguese trade base was established there. The rest, as they say, is history.

Handed back to China in December 1999 Macau, also spelled Macao, is a one hour jet ferry journey from Hong Kong. Sometimes called the Las Vegas of Asia, in terms of gaming revenue perhaps they should call Las Vegas the Macau of America. The 29.5-km2 territory has a population of just 568,700, is just under one-twelfth the size of Las Vegas, and yet it generated seven times Las Vegas's $6 billion last year thanks to the 2.2 billion people live within a five-hour flight.

When it comes to sightseeing how about we start with something to not do. Don’t waste your time going to a casino. They are huge and soulless and offer nothing in the way of the excitement seen on CSI. Instead walk around and absorb the other, much more beautiful and interesting face of Macau. Get a bottle of cheap Portuguese wine and sit in a small square. Largo da Se is as nice as any other, and has the beautiful Igreja da Se. Just off the more commercial Largo Do Senado, the pastel facades of the buildings are a welcome respite from the modern and shimmering waterfront of Hong Kong, which is almost certainly where you came from. The Ruins of St. Paul's Cathedral are probably the most well known tourist site in Macau and somewhat understandably. The seemingly fragile facade is all that is left after a fire ripped through it in 1835. It is overlooked by a fort built on top of the interestingly named Mount Hill.

The tiny region has also made an impressive number of appearances on the big screen, most recently in Skyfall. Along with dozens of Hong Kong movie credits and quite a few Portuguese ones, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was filmed partly here as was the Man With the Golden Gun and Macao, the 1952 film noir starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell.

Macau offers plenty in the way of trinkets and touristy knick knacks, but edible gifts are my favourite and bakkwa, a fatty, dried pork treat that will raise your cholesterol level along with your serotonin, is great and it will survive the journey home too. The almond cookies are pretty good too.

With lots of authentic Portuguese and Macanese - an interesting mix of local and colonial - restaurants, there is plenty of food to try. Among the most popular are stir fried curry crab, minchi - a soy and molasses minced beef and / or pork concoction, Galinha à Portuguesa (Portuguese-style chicken) and Galinha à Africana (you can work that translation out) are among the most popular. Egg tarts are also a must.

Lots of high-end hotels on the reclaimed Cotai Strip house the gamblers, including the very plush and very nice Holiday Inn, the largest in the world, from around 220 GBP a night (look out for seasonal differences and special offers). A cheaper, much cheaper, option would be to camp at Hac Sa Beach. There are plenty of options in between too.

Getting to Macau is almost exclusively easier by taking a ferry from Hong Kong. A one-hour trip each way the cheapest weekend ticket is £12 with Cotai Water Jet and TurboJet (£13.75). However, if you are travelling anytime during your birthday month (until the end of 2013) it is your birthday month you and a friend can get a return ticket for £19.50. Air Macau connects Macau to mainland China, SE Asia and even as far as Seoul and Tokyo. BA fly to Hong Kong for £569 return.

Originally published in the Buzz magazine @Buzz_Magazine

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Charming Snakes on Lantau

Life on Lantau island means sometimes getting in touch with nature, whether you like it or not

You don’t have to be an ornithologist or a herpetologist (more on that later) or any kind of ologist or naturalist to appreciate the nature that lives on Lantau. Walkers, mountain bikers, campers and even just people who value the occasional lung full of clean air can all appreciate that you can’t really get that (or maintain it) without nature. Lantau, and plenty of the other 200 or so islands that are part of the SAR, is awash with nature and is a natural remedy to big city living. But there are things to be aware of while traipsing across the island. There are things lurking in the undergrowth, under the ground and in the trees that may give you even more of an appreciation for the island if not a little shock.

It should come as no real shock, given the geographic location and climate of Hong Kong, that there are snakes here and some poisonous ones at that. But it seems that the city - the smog, buses, trams, skyscrapers and the general detachment from nature that is the strip from Causeway Bay to Wan Chai - leads people to forget that there are islands, greenery, national parks, bays, inlets, beaches, headways and peninsulas that are home to an incredible array of wildlife.

But of all the wildlife, the beasts that crawl, scurry, dig and weave their way around the SAR (perhaps in the world), the snake is quite possibly the most feared, yet like sharks and spiders (probably the three most nightmare-inducing creatures), they are just misunderstood. Distrusted by Christians as the agent of downfall in the Garden of Eden, snakes are firmly in the category with the nightmare beasts. Slimy (even though they aren’t really), creepy, poisonous, fang-bearing creatures of horror movies they are, along with spiders, bats and all kinds of creepy crawlies, are vilified and derided by everyone aside from herpetologists (that’s people who study snakes to me and you).

Not helped by movies like Anaconda, Snakes on a Plane or cameo roles in movies like Indiana Jones, scaremongering videos on youtube of snakes with animal - or even scarier - human shaped bulges they are associated with poison, danger, fear and death. Do an internet image search for snake and you will be presented with a page of scary gaping-mouthed serpents bearing fangs that make people think they are out to get us (aside from the cartoon snake wearing a top hat and playing a guitar) and videos that scare us into thinking man-eating snakes are in the undergrowth. Well, actually they are in the undergrowth, lots of them and lots of different ones but they aren't out to get you. In fact they will avoid you at all costs.

From February 10th, however, you may see more snakes than other years. While the Gregorian calendar is used for day-to-day activities throughout the world, the lunisolar calendar is used to mark traditional holidays in East Asia. The holiday is celebrated all over the world by Asians and is called Seollal in Korea, Shōgatsu in Japan and Tet in Vietnam.

For Western expats in Hong Kong it can be a bit disconcerting to see Hongkongers going about their business as normal on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, but that they don’t, for the most part, participate in our revelry is of course a cultural thing and this lunar New Year will offer those of us who have not experienced it before to see how Hongkongers spend their New Year. And this New Year is the year of the aforementioned snake, in particular the year of the water snake and so maybe sightings of the Plumbeous Water Snake, the Mangrove Water Snake, the Chinese Water Snake and, the most feared of the water snakes, and rightly so, the Banded Sea Snake, or to give it is scientific, and infinitely cooler name Hydrophis cyanocinctus, may increase, although probably not!

But snakes are not, in mythology and historical contexts, anything to be scared of. In fact many ancient civilisations revered and even worshipped the snake.

The 12 Earthly Branches have been used to record the time of day. However, for the sake of entertainment and convenience, they have been replaced by the 12 animals.

Snakes in mythology
In Egyptian myth a many-coiled serpent gave rise to Ra the Sun God and all of creation as a result. The snake is also said to have healing properties in Egypt and in Greek mythology, the Rod of Asclepius is a serpent-entwined rod wielded by the Greek god Asclepius, a deity associated with healing and medicine (which goes someway to explaining why ancient Greeks believed that people could acquire second hearing and second sight if their ears or eyes were licked by a snake!)

Hymns and offerings were made to snakes since it was believed that the goddess Mertseger could manifest herself through the snake. In the Sumerian culture snakes were also very important as a healing symbol and their god Ninazu is identified as the patron of healing, and his son, Ningishzida, is depicted with a serpent and staff symbol.

Snakes have been a common feature of creation myths long before the Garden of Eden. In ancient Indian myth, there is the drought-serpent Ahi, Chinese mythology has the woman-headed snake Nuw (女娲), who made the first humans. Greek myths tell of how Ophion the snake incubated the primordial egg from which all created things were born. The snake is also linked to rebirth and is some myths is likened to the umbilical cord, connecting us to mother and mother earth. Snakes were thought in many cultures to assist mother earth. The Hopi, a native American tribe, worshipped the snake and have a 16-day dance about it.

Of course there is a reason snakes are associated with nightmares and horror, and a lot of this arises from myth too.

Medusa, perhaps the most recognisable of the Greek mythological characters has snakes for hair. In Egyptian myth, every morning the serpent Aapep attacked the Sunship and tried to engulf the ship and the sky was drenched red at dawn and dusk with its blood as the Sun defeated it. In Nordic myth, evil was symbolised by the serpent or dragon called Nidhogg who coiled around one of the three roots of Yggdrasil the Tree of Life, and tried to choke or gnaw the life from it. In ancient Slavic paganism a deity by the name of Veles presided over the underworld. He is almost always portrayed as a serpent or dragon depending on the particular myth. The underworld was part of a mythical world tree. The roots of this tree (usually growing in water) were guarded by Volos the serpent god.

The idea of snake-people living below the Earth was prominent in American myth. The Aztec underworld, Mictlan was protected by python-trees, a gigantic alligator and a snake, all of which spirits had to evade by physical ducking and weaving or cunning, before they could start the journey towards immortality. In North America, the Brule Sioux people told of three brothers transformed into rattlesnakes which permanently helped and guided their human relatives.

As with the Indian drought serpent and the ringed serpent of Egypt representing the oceans, there have been found carved stones depicting a seven-headed cobra are commonly found near the sluices of the ancient irrigation tanks in Sri Lanka; these are believed to have been placed as guardians of the water. Making this year, the year of the water snake, more auspicious.

In the state of Kerala, India, snake shrines occupy most households. Snakes were called upon by the creator of Kerala, Parasurama, to make the saline land fertile. The Mannarasala Shri Nagaraja Temple is one of the main centres of worship. The presiding deity here is Nagaraja - a five-headed snake god born to human parents as a blessing for their caretaking of snakes during a fire. It is believed that Nagaraja left his earthly life and took Samadhi but still resides in a chamber of the temple.

In Australia one of the most prominent Aboriginal stories is the one about the Rainbow Serpent. Many Dreamtime tales tell about the first child of the great creator and the guardian of Australia. The rainbows you see in the bush are said to be the Rainbow Serpent travelling from one water hole to another. If he is happy he will go back into his hole and there will be a beautiful day, if he isn’t happy there will be a terrible storm.

Snakes in the grass
So snakes are both revered and reviled and that is perhaps best reflected in the fact that some snakes are harmless (if you call a nasty bite but ultimately just a bite) and some are very venomous indeed and Hong Kong is no exception.

According to the AFCD “ There are 52 native species of snakes recorded in Hong Kong. The most common snake found on Lantau Island is the Common Blind Snake (Ramphotyphlops braminus) which is a small non-venomous snake. Out of the 52 native species recorded, 14 terrestrial snakes and six sea snakes are venomous. Eight of the terrestrial snakes can inflict fatal bites, including the lately discovered Pointed-scale Pit Viper (Protobothrops mucrosquamatus). All of the sea snakes found in Hong Kong are highly venomous but they are rarely seen. Their venom potency ranges from causing severe pain and swelling to human death."

When it comes to identifying venomous snakes a lot of people stick with the idea that a triangular shaped head is a good indicator. The AFCD had this to say: “No single characteristic can distinguish a venomous snake from a non-venomous one. The common perception that all venomous snakes have triangular-shaped heads is unreliable. A study from a major hospital in the New Territories indicated that over 95 per cent of venomous snake bites recorded in the study were related to Bamboo Snake. Cobra bites occurred much less frequently and bites from Kraits were rarely reported.”

But before you cancel your camping trip and vow to never to ramble the lush hills of Lantau again think about Australia. It is well reported that Australia has the most deadly concoction of snakes and spiders in the world and it is true that snakes do bite and kill people there, and according to the Australian Venom Research Unit (AVRU) the top 11 most poisonous snakes in the world are all in Australia. But even considering that scary fact there were only fifty-eight deaths (41 males and 17 females) reported in relation to venomous snakebites between January 1979 and December 2000, according to the University of Melbourne who got their info from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. In fact you are much more likely to choke and die eating snake soup than you are from a snake bite.

The AVRU, who know their snakes, offer these mostly common sense tips to avoid becoming a very, very rare statistic:

  • Leave snakes alone.
  • Do not attempt to catch or handle snakes. 
  • Wear stout shoes and adequate clothing, including long trousers, in 'snake country'. Do not wear sandals or thongs
  • Never put hands in hollow logs or thick grass or under woodpiles, building material etc without prior inspection. 
  • When stepping over logs, carefully inspect the ground on the other side. 
  • Keep barns and sheds free of mice and rats as they may attract snakes. 
  • Keep grass well cut - particularly in playgrounds, around houses etc. 
  • Take care around houses, barns etc on warm nights, as snakes may be active at this time. Use a torch and wear adequate footwear. 
  • Educate children in the above precautions. 
  • Do not handle snakes whilst intoxicated. 
  • Do not rely on visual identification of snakes as non-venomous, as appearances and colouration may vary considerably within species. 

Conversely the AFCD offers this list of dos and don'ts for reptile watching:

  • When searching for hiding reptiles, turn over rocks or logs lightly. Replace them to their original positions 
  • Use a torch to look inside holes and crevices carefully
  • Do not attempt to handle any snakes and lizards as they may bite and some snakes are venomous. Always keep a distance from any snake 
  • Do not destroy vegetation, wildlife and their living environment 
  • Do not pollute water 
  • Do not litter 

"Herpers" on forums like Asia Expat and Geo Expat are more than willing to give advice on snakes and regularly go out looking for them.

The times of the year when snakes are most active does vary but according to a local snake enthusiast May is the best time, but you will see them up till October/November depending on the weather.

More information on snakes of Hong Kong is available on AFCD’s website and their publication “A Field Guide to the Venomous Land Snakes of Hong Kong”.

This is a great article about snakes, and this is good too. For help identifying snakes there is a great Flickr page here

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